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Brussels, 13 February 2004

Influenza preparedness: Byrne welcomes ministers' agreement on a coordinated approach

"Planning and coordination are key weapons to fight public health threats those who plan well, will respond best", said European Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner David Byrne at an informal ministerial meeting of EU Health Ministers and the Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr Jong-wook Lee, in Brussels on 12 February. The Irish Minister for Health and Children, Micheál Martin, hosted the meeting to discuss public health aspects of the current avian influenza outbreak in South East Asia. Dr Lee gave an overview of the evolving situation. Commissioner Byrne suggested several measures for a coordinated approach on influenza preparedness cooperation on which ministers agreed: to inform one another in advance of taking any measures through the EU's communicable disease network and its Early Warning and Response System, to meet with industry to look at capacity issues for key treatments (vaccines, antivirals), to develop a more integrated policy approach between animal and human health experts on the issue of zoonoses, to coordinate on issues such as research and communication and to continue the close cooperation with the WHO and other international bodies.

David Byrne announced: "We will soon add another key planning instrument. The Commission will soon adopt a working paper on Influenza Pandemic Preparedness and Response Planning in the Community. It will explain the stages of an influenza pandemic based on WHO definitions and set out the main objectives for action. The paper will address key issues of co-ordination and the availability of vaccines and anti-virals. We intend this to be a consultative document to promote effective policies and measures based on a sort of Richter-scale within the EU." The document will add value to the current process of updating national preparedness plans in which several Member States are engaged in. In addition, the Commission is continuing to monitor the current seasonal influenza epidemic through the European Influenza Surveillance Scheme (EISS). This provides valuable data on seasonal influenza activity in 22 European countries.

On the avian influenza outbreak in South East Asia, David Byrne commented "Without adequate control measures the present epidemic could eventually lead to a new influenza pandemic. Our stock taking meeting was a clear confirmation that health of European citizens is best protected, when all actors work quickly, decisively and together. We must press for better surveillance, controls and for more transparency." He underlined the need for an integrated policy approach between animal and human health experts: "Zoonoses present a grave emerging threat to the world's health.

At the global level we will continue to support the much appreciated efforts of the WHO under Dr. Lee's leadership, to develop effective responses with the OIE and the FAO. In the EU, we must redouble our efforts to develop an integrated zoonoses strategy capable of responding to the scale and complexity of this emerging threat. We need an instrument capable of addressing the whole transmission chain, from animals to humans."

Ministers welcomed the fast political progress made on the setting up of European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). Dr Lee expressed the WHO's strong support for the centre.

Ministers agreed to continue the discussion and examine expert reports at the June meeting of the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council.

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